Book: ILL NATURE: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals by Joy Williams

 

Synopsis:

Most of us watch with mild concern the fast-disappearing wild spaces or the recurrence of pollution-related crises such as oil spills, toxic blooms in fertilizer-enriched forests, and violence both home and abroad. Joy Williams does more than watch. In this collection of condemnations and love letters, revelations and cries for help, she brings to light the price of complacency with scathing wit and unexpected humor. Sounding the alarm over the disconnection from the natural world that our consumer culture has created, she takes on subjects as varied as the culling of elephants, electron-probed chimpanzees, vanishing wetlands, and the determination of American women to reproduce at any cost. Controversial, opinionated, at times exceptionally moving, Ill Nature is a clarion call for us to step out of our cars and cubicles, and do something to save our natural legacy.

From Publishers Weekly
Sharp, sarcastic and uncompromising, Williams tackles a host of controversial subjects in this collection of 19 impassioned essays dealing mostly with humans’ abuses of the natural world. Two of the collection’s strongest essays deal with animal rights: “The Killing Game,” an antihunting essay first published, to great furor, in Esquire, and “The Animal People,” which casts a harsh eye on the agricultural, medical and environmental establishments for their treatment of animals. Other pieces note the diminished state of African wildlife (“Safariland”), the increasing number of babies born in the United States despite the threat of overpopulation (“The Case Against Babies”) and the impact of consumer culture on the natural world (“Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp”). An acclaimed novelist (The Quick and the Dead) and Guggenheim fellow, Williams writes that her essays, unlike her stories, are “meant to annoy and trouble and polarize”; she terms her own nonfiction style “unelusive and strident and brashly one-sided.” Readers will likely find all this true. At times, the collection falters under the weight of Williams’s anger and moral indignation, and a few essays that are only loosely nature-related (“Sharks and Suicide,” “The Electric Chair” and “Why I Write”) undermine its momentum. However, her forceful writing and vivid depictions of habitat destruction and animal abuse (“Neverglades,” “Wildebeest”) make for compelling reading. Williams believes that the “ecological crisis” facing us is essentially a “moral issue,” one caused by “culture and character, and a deep change in personal consciousness is needed.” While it is unlikely that her combative rants will win new converts, some environmentalists may find this book a powerful call to action.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

 

Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals
by Joy Williams
The Lyons Press

After reading Joy Williams’ essay “The Case Against Babies,” an indignant freshman at the University of Massachusetts asked: “Who does this woman think she is?”

Many people may have such a reaction when they read “Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals,” Williams’ first book of essays. Such reactions are amusing, though, because they underline a lack of understanding of the author’s style and intention.

“The Case Against Babies” is a fine example of both her writing style and her intention, which are inextricably linked throughout “Ill Nature.” In the essay, Williams writes such things as: “When you see twins or triplets, do you think, aw or ooh or that’s sort of cool, that’s unusual, or do you think, That woman dropped a wad on in-vitro fertilization, twenty-five, thirty thousand dollars, at least.

This mocking, sarcastic tone pervades “Ill Nature.” It will turn some readers off. But mockery and irony are key to Williams’ message. These essays are brave, uncompromising and angry takes on contemporary American culture. She skewers hunters, developers, fishers, consumerists, tourists, yuppies, omnivores, animal researchers — in short, just about everyone who lives in America, including the Makah Indian Tribe, which won the legal right to kill whales off the coast of Washington.

While Williams, who is best known for her fiction, chooses to write about some of the same subject matter as essayists such as Annie Dillard, John McPhee, David Quammen and Edward Hoagland, it is her in-your-face, scathing style that sets her apart.

“You like grass — that is, lawns,” she writes in “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp.” “The ultimate lawn is the golf course, which you’ve been told has ‘some ecological value.’ You believe this! Not that it really matters — you just like to play golf.”

Yes, Williams is talking directly to you, and she’s holding you responsible for the slow, steady destruction of Earth. Through our consumerist economy, Williams is saying, we have lost our connection with nature, and the further we move away from this connection, the more shallow we become as a society, and the more superficial we become the more ruinous we are. Her essay “Neverglades” on the follies we have made trying to restore the Florida Everglades is at once fascinating and frightening.

Williams’ second-person attacks may lend her a hardcore “holier-than-thou” attitude, but she brilliantly undercuts this perception with a deeply moving personal essay about her dog. After her German shepherd, Hawk, suddenly attacks her and mauls her left hand, Williams is forced to put the dog to sleep. This essay immediately follows “The Animal People,” in which she makes a scorching argument for animal rights. The decision to kill her dog comes as a complete surprise, which makes the essay all the more powerful, and turns her into a person rather than some eco-intellectual robot.

If there is anything critics could accuse Williams of, it may be her tendency to make statements as fact without backing them up. Do we believe her when she says a disposable diaper will take four centuries to degrade? And where did she get such information? One could argue, however, that such statements are part of her system. These are personal essays, after all. And it is their brutally opinionated nature that makes them so fun to read.

Not all of the essays in “Ill Nature” are eco-rants, though. One of the best pieces, “Sharks and Suicides,” concerns the life and death of Wendy O. Williams, lead singer of the punk-metal band the Plasmatics. The final essay, “Why I Write,” is a quaint, lyrical reflection on the writing life.

Even if you do not care for Joy Williams well-wrought opinions, though, “Ill Nature” is still a series of superbly written commentaries on contemporary American culture, commentaries that the average reader will find funny at least. Williams’ mockery of self-righteous hunters in “The Killing Game” is downright hilarious. Except, perhaps, if you are a self-righteous hunter. In that case, you may want to stick to shooting harlequin ducks with your .22. Just don’t let Joy Williams see you doing it.

Ben Welch (bwelch@english.umass.edu)

ISBN: 9780375713637

 

 

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